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Letter From the Editor: Our Fragile Food System

Introducing the September/October 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.
From left, Pacific Standard editor-in-chief Nicholas Jackson, staff writer Francie Diep, and associate editor Max Ufberg in the magazine’s new office.

From left, Pacific Standard editor-in-chief Nicholas Jackson, staff writer Francie Diep, and associate editor Max Ufberg in the magazine's new office.

When my job gets a bit overwhelming — usually when we’re shipping an issue, like the one before you — I have a ritual. I trek out to the end of the wharf not far from our offices in California, and I enjoy a couple of beers and a rock crab.

Or I did, until I couldn’t anymore.

Last year, the California Fish and Game Commission delayed the start of the crabbing season after discovering that the local rock and Dungeness crabs along the coast were contaminated with high levels of domoic acid, a neurotoxin known to cause seizures in sea lions, seabirds, and other animals that rely on the crustaceans for sustenance. In California alone, the crabbing industry nets about $60 million a year, supporting many fishermen across the state, but officials warned that the acid could kill humans or, in lesser amounts, lead to permanent short-term memory loss.

Domoic acid, produced by a toxic form of algae that blossomed from Washington all the way down to Santa Barbara County in Southern California last year, could be an even bigger problem in the years to come. “There does appear to be a link between warm water and bigger blooms, so what does this tell us about future years with warmer conditions?” asked Kathi Lefebvre, a research biologist at the federal Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

After its introduction in November, the ban on crabbing was lifted in mid-February, and I went back to my usual routine. But in the interim I was forced to consider, in a way I often don’t, just how fragile our food system can be.

Like electricity or water, food is something we expect to be available whenever we need it. But there are problems with this assumption — and with the related systems — that need to be aggressively confronted.

In this issue, we aim to do just that, taking you inside the race to formulate a viable, ethical, edible fake beef; to the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska, where large-scale farming and livestock operations have depleted one of our nation’s most important resources for more than a century; above, through the use of aerial photography, the industrial feedlots that scar the landscape of the Texas Panhandle; and behind the scenes of our byzantine system for determining which foods — like those crabs — are actually edible.